As the season of Christmas approaches, our minds are full of the heart-warming scene of the Nativity with Mary gently cradling the infant Messiah and the shepherds and kings looking on in adoration. Thanks to St. Francis for bringing this tradition to us we fill our homes and yards with recreations of this event.
As a Bible enthusiast and archaeologist, I like to get as close to the real thing as I can, so I want to share with you what that first Christmas most likely looked like. In ancient Israel, natural caves were used as living spaces and also places to shelter flocks and herds. In the area of Bethlehem where Jesus was born, the rocky hills provided many caves for shelter. Most structures were built of stone since stones are abundant whereas wood for lumber was scarce. Even today, homes there are built of stone or cement.
There is a spot in Bethlehem called the Shepherd’s Field where tourists can go to get a glimpse of the natural look of the land, though the growing city of Bethlehem is expanding across what once was an idyllic landscape of hills used for grazing. A cave there is on display to step inside out of the sweltering summer heat or the chilly winter rains to get a better idea of how first century people used caves to shelter animals.
The Majesty of God
The stable where Mary and Joseph spent the night of Jesus’ birth was most likely much like the cave at the Shepherd’s Field. That cave is beneath the Church of the Nativity, which was first built around AD 327 by Constantine the Great and his mother St. Helena to honor the birth of Our Lord. This cave is accessible to pilgrims by stepping down a short set of stairs to a grotto beneath the altar of the main sanctuary of the church. A metal star surrounded by marble slabs marks the spot of the blessed event, but in other parts of the grotto, the cave walls are still visible, although covered with tapestries in most places.
The manger as well would have been hewn of stone, and many such mangers have been excavated around the country. It is amazing to think just how earthy the Incarnation truly was. The infant Son of God entered the world not only on the surface of the earth, but beneath it, in a way pointing us to how he will be laid in the earth again for three days before his resurrection. God was pleased to enter the world in utter humility, but we, recognizing his holiness, have built elaborate structures over these spots in our attempt to honor him as he truly deserves. Visiting these places can bring us in touch with his humility and bring us to our knees in worship. Thanks be to God we can take time each year to set up the humble Nativity scene to remind us of the majesty of God.
This article was originally published on The Great Adventure Blog on December 3, 2014.
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About Emily Cavins
Emily received her bachelor of arts degree in classical and Near Eastern archaeology from the University of Minnesota, and is a tour leader of annual pilgrimages to Israel and other Bible-related destinations. She is the developer of the Great Adventure Kids Bible study resources, and co-author of The Great Adventure Storybook. She co-authored the Walking Toward Eternity Bible Study Series, Part One (Daring to Walk the Walk) and Two (Engaging the Struggles of Your Heart) with her husband, Jeff. She is also the author of Lily of the Mohawks: The Story of St. Kateri, and Catholic Family Night, a series of lessons covering all three liturgical reading cycles with one lesson per week throughout the entire year. Emily lives in Minnesota with Jeff, her husband of over thirty years.
Thank you Emily, for this beautiful article with a truer version of what that First Christmas would have been like…It is most meaningful to me as I have always been drawn to the tomb of Christ…to the cave…I see now, that what I was drawn to was the Life of the Living Christ that lay in the cave…the One who comes at Christmas…the One who will come at Easter is in the future…but this is the One who we have “With us” now!! At Christmas time, we celebrate our Present…at Easter, we celebrate our Future!! What an awesome thought!! Thank you again!!
Hi Beverly–Maybe you’d be interested in learning more about the Tomb of Christ in a book I put together for pilgrims who travel with us to the Holy Land. Here’s a link to more info about it: http://jeffcavins.squarespace.com/home/category/emily Thanks for your comments!
Thank you, Emily…I looked at the site, and being technically challenged, I didn’t see how I could order the book…but I did see that you have written about St. Kateri as well…she has been an important saint in my life for a long time…instilling in me a love for those who lived in this country first…as a result I have come to respect, honor, and treasure the many spiritual gifts that the Native American culture has to share with all who would take the time to look. Thank you, for giving me the opportunity to reflect this morning in Thanksgiving for all those who suffered through the Holocaust, as your friend did (in another book you have written, I see), and for all those who have suffered in the Native American community as a result of our appetite for dominion over this beautiful land…This has given me much sadness…as I ponder anew, how we have let God down, in favor of our own desires…The Native Americans have such a rich and inherent love of Nature…and it makes me sad to think of what we are doing to it today…O God, forgive our hardened hearts…we are truly in need of your guidance, your help, and your mercy and justice…Amen.
Thank you Emily for your lovely inspiring post, Your reflection made me want to learn more about St Francis’ Creche, I found it here http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/catholic-contributions/st-francis-and-the-christmas-creche.html. It seems that it was indeed in a cave.
Thanks for sharing the link about St. Francis!
Thank you Emily for this awe inspired reflection on the place and birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ! Over the course of the past six months, I have done a study on the relationship of how Jesus arrived into Jerusalem/Bethlehem in the womb of Mary. For His birth riding on a donkey, giving birth in a cave and laid into a stone manger, as He did on Palm Sunday riding on a donkey suffered His Passion as was wrapped in the same type of material as His birth, as He was laid into a carved out tomb wrapped in the same linen that His mother,Mary wrapped Him at his birth. Three days after his birth, the three wise kings presented Him with royal gifts, just as He presented Himself as the resurrected Christ over death. Many other parallels are drawn from His birth to His Passion that can be drawn through out his public ministry that also parallels His New Testament that is fulfill in the Old Testament coming of the long long awaited Messiah.Peace to you and you and family during this season of Advent!
Great insights, Reed! Thanks for taking the time to share them.
So wonderful. I was blessed to go there in March 2013. Awesome. I wonder why I also hear of some of this in Rome? Seems to me that the reality is in Israel??? Cannot be in two places, correct?
This fits my theory that Jesus was a Sun God and the Nativity myth/allegory was about the Sun emerging from a cave after traveling the underworld. For instance, ancient Egyptians believed that the Sun set into a cave then traveled through the underworld during the dark hours (underground) then it emerged out of a cave in the morning. They had no idea that they lived on a planet that rotated on its axis and revolved around the sun etc… So they made up stories attempting to explain their world.